The Big Breakfast

Friday, March 29, 2002 by

Of the many and rather pathetic parting twists of the knife Planet 24 seemed compelled to enact upon anyone they could think of this morning, most irritating of all was making sure the last ever Big Breakfast was one hour longer than usual. So typical for a show that abandoned all pretence of knowing when to bow out many years ago, and to also ensure that how they took their leave was an occasion lacking even the tiniest semblance of dignity.

From the kick off at 7am it was clear this was to be a gruelling, pitiless assault on our senses. The house was packed with cheering, gurning folk of no particular identity or charm, plus a guest band who were out of place, on account of being talented. The forced jollity was immediately made all the more worse by the introduction of a joyless running gag based on the fact that, as Richard Bacon cackled, “This is a momentous occasion for us – no, not the last show; today we’re celebrating out 10th birthday – a bit early.” Six months early to be exact. Richard then turned to one of the many faces who, somewhat unbelievably, jostled for the privilege of associating themselves with this macabre curtain call. “Impressionist Jon Culshaw – has Tom Baker got anything to say about this day?” Worryingly, it was all too difficult to tell whether Culshaw’s enthusiasm responding to such a request was sincere or not.

Not only was the house crammed with complicit spectators, but the garden was teeming with, apparently, ” 500 people” who’d turned up to play the part of a rowdy mob. “Shut up now – I’m trying to talk,” Richard yelled, rather missing the point of having a crowd there at all. Co-host Amanda Byram then made the first of many frantic dives for her clipboard, terrified at being separated from it for all of 30 seconds. The line-up for the rest of the show was optimistically unveiled, timed to the nearest minute, and suitably self-important features and guests were promised. Pity then that simple cuts between different parts of the house had evidently not been similarly pre-planned, as just four minutes in we lost a sound link to the bathroom and Zig and Zag were unfortunately left mouthing in silence (though Mike “Squeaky” McLean who was with them was, fortunately, also rendered mute).

Things took a hell of a long time to gather a momentum. Johnny Vegas, a man clearly under the impression talent and appreciation increase exponentially with exposure, made a wholly unwelcome appearance. Vanessa Feltz was also there, conveniently forgetting the way she previously quit the show over principles and a plate of baked beans. Of all the weird personnel peopling the lurid, battered décor – Penny from Big Brother, Ralf Little, numerous cast members of EastEnders - surely the one who made the biggest mistake in attending was Richard Whiteley. Looking uneasy and ruffled from the start, what did he think he had to gain by showing up, other than to perhaps indulge a predilection for being there in person at both the opening up and the closing down of major British broadcasting institutions?

Our quartet of hosts tried to generate some excitement. Sounding, as ever, as if every sentence he uttered was in inverted commas, Richard Bacon maintained the impression of not wanting to give Amanda one second’s room to speak for herself, which was actually just as well, seeing as when she did manage to force out a word or two it sounded like the baying of a smug pigeon. “Squeaky” was off with a giant garden gnome to a secret location. “I’m just bambling now,” he promised. Over in the phone room, meanwhile, and after tumbling onto the air to an amusingly unsubtle off-camera shout of “Lisa!”, Ms Rogers appealed for viewers to ring in and e-mail thoughts on the show’s departure and to vote on which of two “classic clips” from the archive should be shown. You’d have thought that given the alternatives – Chris Evans and the fossilised turds, and Denise Van Outen talking about an ashtray she nicked from Buckingham Palace – they needn’t have bothered waiting for the results. All the more mystifying then that the winner turned out to be Denise. How more maddening could this show become? Still, even 10 seconds of that clip was immediately 50 times better than the present day Big Breakfast. Especially as a cutaway revealed Chas and Dave were in the house that morning.

The comparatively high standing and unsullied reputation of Zig and Zag was further belittled with a rather stupid “power interview” feature, with random guests grilled for 30 seconds a time, beginning with bloody Jon Culshaw – “What would Tony Blair say about the celebrations here today?” – and ending with Richard Whiteley. “Which vowel describes you best?” he was challenged. “S,” came the reply. We quickly lurched over to the final component of the show, another OB, this time from Stevenage and hosted by a returning Keith Chegwin. He was intending to plant a Big Breakfast “time capsule” in someone’s front garden, and had a mini-JCB digger on hand. Cheggers approached the machine’s driver. “Trevor, a nerve wracking moment for you?” “Yeah.”

An attempt at holding a quiz on the show’s history with some “Superfans” was spoilt by some persistent heckling, more sound problems, and the way the fans were made to look like sad nerds. Only two of the six “fans” actually answered any of the questions, but amusingly the only one they got wrong was the date on which Amanda first appeared on the show. “I thought that went well,” quacked Richard. Then the lifeless newsreader Jasmine Lowson thought she’d brighten up proceedings by leaving the ITN studio and come “to the house for a change.” But who’d replace her to do the remaining bulletins? Phil Gayle loomed onto the camera. “I’m a big fan of your work on Crimewatch Daily,” blurted Richard, as ever with slightly fluffed timing.

In an instant throwback to the kind of content Planet 24 flogged to death on The Word, Pityu, “the world’s smallest man”, came on and Richard made him do some handstands. “It’s a dream,” he announced, “you will not have breakfast telly like that come May – fact,” which may or may not turn out to be true, but is beside the point given that that kind of done-for-the-sake-of-it, rather seedy feature doesn’t really belong on breakfast telly anywhere. Then came a woman who’d had her car crushed by Richard on an OB two years ago. Richard asked the question we all wanted to know: what happened when the cameras stopped rolling? “Well, we went home, and we had no car,” she replied, correctly.

The big special guest of the morning was somehow very typical Big Breakfast fare: an averagely-famous soap star from EastEnders. Lucy Benjamin was on to promote the occasion of her marriage to “that guy from Tucker’s Luck,” interrupted Richard. Later, in what was Zig and Zag’s last appearance on screen, she played a tedious game guessing the identity of fellowEastEnders cast members from musical clues. She didn’t need this, and neither did Zig and Zag.

In the second hour Lisa Rogers began losing it big time. Someone called in to complain they’d have no reason for getting to work late once the show had finished. “You can watch the other lot,” she advised, just a little too hastily. She also interviewed a collection of guests in the garden, including a boy called Robert, who was born on the first day of The Big Breakfast, who wisely chose not to say a single word to Lisa. The international air guitar champion was there as well. He rolled around on the ground a bit, until Lisa shrieked, “Zak just saw my fanny – I can’t believe it.”

While “John Logie Baird” was seen weeping that the show he created TV for was being axed, there were more problems, as one of the lead singers from So Solid Crew hadn’t arrived. “They have been through the metal detectors,” snapped Richard lamely. It was another hour before they’d all shown up, to be given a memorable introduction by Amanda: “We’ve got a little bit longer than 21 seconds to go – not much longer.” The ensuing performance was unintentionally hilarious for seeing dozens of the Crew crammed on a tiny stage, doing lyrics about The Big Breakfast (bet they’ll look back on that fondly) and seeing Richard and Amanda trying to dance.

Yet it quickly became an increasingly tiresome and desperate business to give the show any real attention and interest. The nadir came around the midpoint of proceedings, half way through the second hour, when Richard Whiteley genuinely looked like he was about to die during the demeaning Star Turn game. “Look at the happy people,” Richard bawled, unaware of how close to fatality Monsieur Twatley appeared to be. A commemorative plate was won for a lucky caller who’d previously announced she was “definitely” looking forward to watching The Big Breakfast‘s replacement.

The show staggered onwards. Wayne Hemingway, the programme’s “longest serving expert”, was interviewed, and you could hear the crew and other guests blithely chatting amongst themselves throughout, which was a nice touch. Out on the OBs, Squeaky had ended up with his giant gnome at a suspiciously familiar location. “For the first time ever,” he confusingly began, “I’m going to reveal its new spiritual home.” It was 124 Horseferry Road. “This is the home of the powers-to-be,” Squeaky continued, reading his lines off a card and still messing them up. This was a wholly unnecessary, unbecoming and bitter gesture. Worse – the camera pulled back to show that said gnome had been deposited directly opposite the entrance to the Channel 4 HQ and was giving a juvenile two-fingered salute to Mark Thompson. “It’s the very least we can do after all the sh…stuff they’ve given us over the last nine and a half years,” Squeaky winced. Was this really the best that Charlie Parsons could come up with?

Of course it was. Rather more sedentary was the laying of the time capsule. Despite protests – “Will the council allow it?” – a resident had conceded Cheggers the right to dig up his precious turf. “We’re burying The Big Breakfast,” he announced, unaware that had already happened a long time ago. Into the capsule went a Stevenage badge, presumably in case the whole town ever moved location overnight, then a load of anonymous props which represented nothing about the show whatsoever, other than its latter-day tackiness and lack of imagination: a comedy lobster; a spangly cloth; and some of Cheggers’ body hair. A tiny trumpeter sounded an off-key Last Post, but then something strange happened. Keith began delivering a speech that sounded as if it was almost serious. Indeed, despite listing the presenters and missing out Danny Baker, and ending with the line “It’s one small step for man, but a giant leap of the memory kind,” Keith seemed quite moved. “It’s been the only show in 35 years of working on TV,” he continued, “where I’ve been allowed to have my head and do what I like.”

In the closing hour this note of resignation returned as the 10th birthday patter was dropped and Richard commanded: “Silence for this – the end of an era.” Suddenly this farewell show started to resonate, and to mean something. A carefully assembled mini-documentary was screened, inevitably called I Love The Big Breakfast, filled with former presenters speaking with apparent sincerity and a passion about their time on the show.

Here, finally, the real significance of the whole occasion hit home, and it was difficult not to feel quite emotional, especially as the first half of the film comprised clips and anecdotes solely from the original and best team, Chris and Gaby. While Chris was interviewed in front of some sparkling US countryside, Gaby looked like she was sitting in her local pharmacy. Nonetheless they both spoke warmly about the programme. “It was the happiest I’ve ever been – and the tiredest I’ve ever been,” confessed Chris. Both were also careful to pay tribute the production team. You felt at last a recognition of what you’d always remembered The Big Breakfast to be like, of why you watched in the first place, and above all why its most recent, and last, incarnation has been such an insult to the show’s history. This was a moment of real, profound sadness.

The tribute then moved onto more recent times. Though fun to see again, it was surely an act of malice on the part of the production team to show Zoë Ball’s famously-botched first ever entrance. But even footage from Johnny Vaughan’s era, with both Denise and Liza Tarbuck, stood up well compared to nowadays. The clips concluded with Chris shown complaining: “Why take it off? Why? Putting a production team together like that takes years. It’s mad to disband it.” He clearly hadn’t seen the show for some time.

Back at the house, Richard declared, rather obviously, “It is over.” A fax, supposedly from the Prince of Wales, was read out, and whether real or not seemed to backfire and fall rather flat. There was room for one last rendition of the always-awful “Friday Song”, blessed with Vanessa’s voice drowning out everyone else, and featuring lyrics suggesting everyone was actually proud of the entire preceding nine and a half years, when only the first two are genuinely worth remembering and commending. But time was up. Undignified to the last, the farewell Big Breakfast concluded with endless shambolic shots of complete strangers (presumably friends of the show) meandering about, and the four main hosts dancing over the canal with childish grins on their faces. No-one seemed that emotional, there certainly weren’t any tears, in fact nobody seemed that bit bothered. It was easy to feel the same.

Even the absolute end was botched. After a welcome burst of the original, and best, version of the theme tune, an evocative montage of sound clips accompanied a lone camera drifting round a now deserted house. Then we cut to a crap computer graphic of it blowing up. Hopeless.

The Big Breakfast, 1992-2002: don’t remember it this way.


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